(PL) Podlasie: Reflections on returning from Poland’s Podlasie region (UK)

Before setting off to Poland the group of 6 people who went to Poland as the British group had 3 meetings where we discussed the information that had been sent to us and our preconceptions prior to leaving.  We arrived at the following questions.

1)    What is the role of a cultural animator? What is the role of the Artist?

2)    Are projects led by professionals or volunteers?

3)    What are the values underpinning the work?

4)    What do we mean by quality and what is the connection between quality of process and quality of product?

5)    Is there a Europe wide consensus on the meaning of the word culture? And how does language and the difference in terminology echo differences in approach to participatory work?

6)    Is there enough agreement about approaches to the work that we could establish criteria that equally applies to practice in all three countries?

7)    Polish approaches are theory rich.  How does theory complement practice and how does practice support theory?

8)    How is work commissioned?

9)    What measures are taken to include people with varying abilities?  How do projects contribute to community cohesion especially in relation to different cultural backgrounds?

In reflecting back after the trip as a group we realised that although these were all relevant questions, the rich experiences of the trip led people to respond in a range of ways to what we saw and experienced. We aim to meet again  in July to revisit some of these specific questions however all members of the group had reflections they wanted to share and where possible these comments have been grouped into areas related to these research questions.

 

Reflections from Participants

Context

In terms of our understanding of the cultural context of the work and our understanding of where projects come from and who develops them, we all felt we gained a clear of the way many of the projects we visited were developed.

One participant said:

“The projects we visited all helped me gain some insight into community relations and motivations of some of the individuals involved. I cannot come to a conclusion about the underlying values of the work as the projects were so varied. I can only propose that all were in some way aiming to share a particular aspect of a named culture with a wider audience, or to inspire people to think about and express their culture.”

A  specific emblematic theme seemed to be  repeated in all projects we visited related to the nature and ethnic mix of the community in the borderlands of Poland –something relating to identity and finding and identifying lost voices and lost histories.

One participant said:

“The retention and expression of traditional cultural practices, particularly songs and dances, was the main theme of the projects we visited.”

And another one commented that:

“ Those groups that managed to embrace Polish culture alongside their own were those that impressed the most. Overall it seemed to me that the relaxation about ethnic groups was a function of how long that minority had been in what is now Poland.”

 

Professional Vs Amateur artists : The Role of the Cultural Animator.

Although this discussion was prompted by the original literature sent out to us, our experience in Poland was that there was no particular approach to project development which was more effective than others. Some projects were genuine grass roots projects that sprung out of local cultures such as the singing of  “Old Believers” while others were based on a professional practice such as the work with young people in Sejny.

One group member commented:

“The role of the lead artist/ cultural animator varied from project to project. Mostly it seemed to be a facilitative role, and also educational. Some people were professional performers and managers of their own projects, and the community engagement was secondary. Other professionals set out to engage communities from the start and to enable them to express themselves by sharing skills and supporting their development. “

Another reflected:

“I realised that what I do is cultural animation, as an artist I do not always have an output of artwork but work to activate spaces and inspire people and places, something I think the UK needs more of and less of outputs that do not have quality and integrity- need cultural animation MA over here!

 

Quality

In terms of the power of the work in the projects  that we visited  we all felt that  we had  experiences of the highest quality and gained an insight into the creative processes of the communities  we visited.  One participant identified three particular highlights:

  • Quality of the work in particular the Pocztówka Cultural Association, Jan Józef Lipski Common University, The Centre of Education and Promotion of Belarusian Culture and The Centre Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations
  • The passion, belief and personal connections and duration of the projects made them have quality and integrity and was an inspiring way of working
  • The old believers performance was powerful and beautiful and totally unexpected something I won’t forget

Another commented that:

“The Youth work we learned about at the fire station and the films and the films and live performances at Senje have already furnished me with ideas for young people to express themselves that I have already used with one of the groups that I work with”

 

A criteria for approaching work in all three countries

Different people commented on both the similarity and difference of the work in Poland that we saw  in relation to the UK.  There was no consensus, although all agreed that the context of the work is the most important determining factor.

One participant commented:

“The retention and expression of traditional cultural practices, particularly songs and dances, was the main theme of the projects we visited. This activity is readily seen in rural areas in England and to a certain extent in urban areas. I have been a member of two Border Morris dancing sides in the last few years in Stoke on Trent. The folk dancers at Bocki reminded me of this. All the group singing we saw and heard – Bocki fire service, Malinki and the Riabina was directly related to the singing I take part in and lead as a member of Clay Chorus and Loud Mouth Women. I have taken part in many singing workshops too, and particularly the Bulgarian singing style is a similar open-throated style to that of Riabina (the Old Believers) so I felt very much at home with them.”

Theorising community arts

We felt as a group that all though there was lot of theorising in the literature about Polish approaches to Cultural Animation only a few of the groups that we visited seemed to be consciously applying theories of Participation. One participant commented:

“The projects we visited all helped me gain some insight into community relations and motivations of some of the individuals involved. I cannot come to a conclusion about the underlying values of the work as the projects were so varied. I can only propose that all were in some way aiming to share a particular aspect of a named culture with a wider audience, or to inspire people to think about and express their culture.”

The lack of theorising however did not mean that there was any lack of rigour in the way the work was applied to the particular set of historical and social challenges of the context in which the work was taking place.  We were all struck by the fact that most of the work we experienced was performance based and we felt that specifically the theatre based work seemed to have the strongest theoretical base, however the motivation and the approach varied greatly from project to project.

“A more contemporary approach to cultural animation was seen in the theatre projects. These included a village festival of theatre organised by Pocztowka; Malinki’s folk theatre performances of traditional rituals, Joanna’s one-woman show in Belarusian and the powerful performance by young people of a piece sharing people’s stories of life in Sejny over the last 100 years, organised by Borderland Centre.”

Community Cohesion: Participation

We were all struck by the clarity of the vision shared by most projects (the exception being the Lithuanian centre in Sejny) to integrate communities and promote community cohesion between communities.

One participant said:

“At the time it seemed that the question about how projects contribute to community cohesion was (more) important and that, as I have mentioned is the issue that struck me most of all during the trip. I came home with a renewed commitment to tackling exclusion and racism and promoting cohesion in Stoke.”

Another participant was equally inspired by this aspect of the work:

“I had project ideas inspired by combination of The Borderlands project and Common University and would like to bring together young people from each of the 6 towns in SOT to develop a long-term project. I would like to continue to work with this group of people from UK, think we have similar ideas and passions and good to learn from each other and continue to share projects and try to improve community/public project in SOT through this process”

Another commented about how they were inspired to think about the nature of community cohesion itself:

“Community cohesion is created by sharing the actual. The taking part / being part of something – the actual activity is irrelevant – as long as participants feel inspired / passion / connected.”

One thing was noted by one member of the group in relation to the specific research question relating to people with disabilities:

“We did not visit any projects which deliberately set out to involve disabled people. It was not clear what measures were used to include people with varying abilities and we did not find the opportunity to ask about this.”

Every one expressed interest in developing ideas from the work that they saw in Podlasie.

Things to consider in future:

Although we all felt that the experience of the study trip itself had been extensively covered in the meeting we had as a group on the last day, there were a few suggestions that some members of the group wanted to make about things to consider if repeating a study trip in future:

  • ·It would be good to experience a wider range of art forms, particularly in the visual arts.
  • ·It would be good to involve more professional artists/ cultural animators from each country.
  • ·The programme was rich and varied but it would be good to involve a wider variety of practical activities mixed in with the sit down talking sessions.
  • ·Although it is difficult and we would not have wanted to miss any of the projects we saw it would be good to build in more social time and to avoid timetabled activities so late in the evening.

(Group reflections written up by Mark Webster)

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